Owen Leeper recounts three-week road trip to tackle the steeps of the Sierra Nevada

Owen Leeper recounts three-week road trip to tackle the steeps of the Sierra Nevada

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Your first couloir in California was a self-described “Plan B.” What was “Plan A,” and how did you come upon Plan B?

I first drove out to Squaw to ski the resort for a couple of days, it was just spring skiing and not a whole lot there to hit, objective-wise.

After that I was planning on going to ski Matterhorn Peak, it’s right outside of Bridgeport. But, I woke up in the morning and there were 45 mile-per-hour gusts at the trailhead, and it was supposed to be 70 mile-per-hour winds up on the ridge, so I decided that wasn’t the best plan and just drove from there down towards Mammoth. On the road into Mammoth I spotted this neat couloir at the end of the road and decided to get as close as I could to it, boot up and ski it. It was just on the way, I found it and drove over to it.

That’s convenient. Does it have a name?

Someone told me it’s called the “Airport Couloir,” because it’s right across from the airport.

How many times did you end up skiing something you just happened to spot from the road?

I think on three of the days my plan was just to go to an area, skin up, see what I saw and go skiing. But the only famous one, Parachute Couloir [on 9,984-foot Pyramid Peak], is one you can basically see as you’re driving towards Mammoth from Bishop. You see a giant notch in the cliff there—that’s the couloir. And I was like, “I’ll see if I can get up there and ski that.” It was three and a half miles of flat terrain on the approach before you boot up. It was a long way to go but really cool once you got up there.

Leeper skiing the Parachute Couloir

Another widely-known line you skied was Hole in The Wall near Mammoth Mountain. Was it your intention to sort of mix unknown ski lines with famous ones? Or were you just kind of taking it day-by-day, mission-by-mission?

It was mostly day-by-day, but a lot of it had to do with the weather. That day we skied Hole in the Wall, we were planning on skiing Mt. Whitney the next day, so I wanted to ski something a bit more mellow and Hole in the Wall is just outside the resort boundary. That was one where I just drove up to the end of the road, skinned up to the ridge, skied something a bit mellow. I had seen photos of it before and wanted to go find it and try it. So, I skied down through it and my truck was about 100 yards away from the bottom, it just happened to work out that way.

Leeper skiing the Hole in the Wall near Mammoth Mountain. Photo: Owen Leeper

In terms of well-known objectives, you ticked the highest peak in the contiguous United States—Mt. Whitney—off the list. Reaching the summit and skiing a 14,505-foot mountain is not a simple and straight-forward outing. Was that simply a “type 2 fun” slog or were there quality turns involved?

That was a crazy day. From the beginning we weren’t even sure we could get up to the base of it because we thought the road was closed, and if it was, it would’ve added 3,000 vertical feet of walking on the road. We went up to check it out and were able to drive all the way to the trailhead. It was windy in the parking lot when we started skinning and the whole time that we were going up the clouds were swirling and socking in the top of the peak, then they would blow out and it would be blue skies for a while, then sock back in.

Dropping into Mt. Whitney. Photo: Owen Leeper

The whole way up we weren’t sure if we were going to make it, but we finally got to the last col (the lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks), about 500 feet from the top of the mountaineer’s route, and there were black clouds and 60 to 70 mile-per-hour gusts, and every time a gust would come you’d have to stick your ice axe into the slope and hold on for a second until it blew over. Then we’d go 10 or 20 steps and do it all over again. It was pretty gnarly but we finally made it up to the top but couldn’t find the route to drop in that actually still had snow, so we had to pick our way around. We kind of had to hack our way into it, and the whole time the wind is blowing back and forth, threatening to knock us off the north face and fall down the whole thing. That was probably the scariest part of it. But we skied down some chalk at the top, then the top of the couloir involved jump-turning on refrozen spring snow, but then halfway down the mountain the snow turned to corn, and we skied 3,000 feet of perfect corn back down. The day turned into a really great one.

Leeper descending the mountaineer’s route on Mt. Whitney. Photo: Scottie Waylett

Sounds like quite the adventure. Running down the list of other popular objectives you skied, The Bloody Couloir on Bloody Mountain is the second line you bagged with a rather intimidating name, Terminal Cancer being the other. Do the names live up to the reputation?

I think they’re both of those are kind of misnomers. Bloody Mountain, I think just refers to the color of the rock from the mining up there. We booted up that no problem, it was just a big, open couloir. Depending on the year you ski them, this year they had so much snow that everything is super filled in, but I can imagine in a low snow year it may be a little more intimidating and tight, but this year it was easy to ski. And Terminal Cancer isn’t a tough ski at all, relatively speaking.

You met up with Bernie Rosow and Christian Pondella for a few outings. They’re both well-renowned in the Mammoth area. What was it like hitting peaks with them? It looked like you guys got into some spicy zones.

I couldn’t find anyone to go with me on the trip, so my whole plan was just to drive out there and I figured I’d find some people who lived in California or some friends along the way. I met up with a buddy from Aspen and skied Whitney and Bloody with him. And I was also talking with Bernie on Instagram, he told me if I ended up in Mammoth to hit him up and we’d go ski some lines. So we linked up one day, and then I sent Christian—I met him through a friend on social media—a message and he happened to be going out with Bernie the next day so I linked up with them. It was really cool to get out with them and see things from the locals’ perspective. We skied a really cool line that neither of them had actually ever skied before, it was a really cool experience.

That line looked incredibly steep once you were topping out of the couloir.

We were kind of booting up a mellow couloir because the one we wanted to ski had a giant cornice at the top. So we were going to try and go around and drop into it from the top. And just the way the wind and snow had stuck to the mellow couloir, it turned into about 65-degree slope at the top. And we couldn’t really kick in with our crampons because they were balling up with snow and it actually turned out to be a pretty gnarly climb, it added to the whole adventure and it was a really fun day.

Christian Pondella and Bernie Rosow climbing an incredibly steep couloir. Photo: Owen Leeper

You’ve been using the hashtag #alwaysgo throughout the trip. Is that some mixture of the phrases “Know Before You Go” and “You Don’t Know Until You Go”?

Basically, you can always find a reason not to go. “Oh, it might be cloudy,” “Oh, it might be too windy,” “The snow might be too dangerous.” But, there are so many days where we just decide, “alright, tomorrow’s the day, we’re going to go see what we find,” and then whatever happens, if it’s too windy or the snow is bad you turn around, but most of the time, I’ve figured out, even though you don’t ski exactly what you had planned to, you can still find something fun to ski. So I kind of just decided, you always go, you’ll find something, whether it’s the initial objective or something else. I just tried to do that the whole trip.

Is there some sort of extended significance of the trip, in terms of building your skills and paying your dues to bag bigger and badder peaks in the future?

Well, my original plan was to stay out longer and go up and ski some of the volcanoes in Oregon and Washington. This trip was kind of a building trip to just get in shape and then go back and ski a bunch of volcanoes. I’m still planning on doing that in late May or early June, to go up and maybe ski Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, the Three Sisters and Mount Hood.

A sampling of Leeper’s road trip.

Is there a favorite moment from the trip?

Terminal Cancer, I’ve seen photos of that pretty much my whole life, and to finally get in that couloir, boot up between the walls and ski back down was one of the highlights of the trip. And then, standing on top of Mt. Whitney, knowing that you’re on the highest spot in the lower 48 was a really cool feeling.

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